Ulysses has an intimidating reputation, and it's not entirely unfounded. Joyce's monumental novel changed not only the way literature is written, but the way it is understood and evaluated. Taking its name from the hero of Homer's Odyssey, the narrative follows Leopold Bloom through the streets of Dublin on 16 June 1904. Many of the characters bear strong similarities to figures in the Greek epic (Bloom, of course, is Ulysses himself), and a number of key events are reflected in Bloom's experiences.
James Joyce was avant-garde before it was altogether popular. The narrative of Ulysses shifts time and place without warning, falls in and out of stream of consciousness, and uses a variety of literary styles to convey the story. The plot (what passes for one) is often complicated, and there are so many characters it's difficult to keep track of them. The prose is brilliant—Joyce was a master craftsman, and despite his experimentation a style to rival that of any great novelist emerges, more mature than Dubliners, less esoteric and unfathomable than Finnegans Wake.
Often accused of being unnecessarily vulgar, Joyce wrestled consistently in his art with themes of guilt and sin. In a particularly memorable scene, Bloom finds himself inadvertantly in the Dublin red-light district where he falls into an hallucinatory state in which relatives and friends remind him of various sins he has committed. It is particularly sexual sins he is required to account for, and at one point he even transforms into a woman. Eventually he stops hallucinating, after a final apparition of his own dead child (the result of a sexual indiscretion) appears in the street near him.
As a novelist for the people, Joyce was equal parts humanist and misanthrope. Though he saw people as inherently flawed, burdened and endlessly oppressed by their own misdeeds, he portrayed them and their struggles in ultimately compassionate terms. His penchant for graphic depictions of human evil and suffering is nevertheless instructive rather than gratuitous, and requires readers to reckon with their own dark natures, rather than simply keeping a comfortable, largely dishonest, equilibrium.
This book caused quite the ruckus, even going so far as to earn a federal obsenity trial in 1933.
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